HC Deb 21 November 1950 vol 481 cc308-12

9.2 p.m.

Mrs. Jean Mann (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

I welcome the opportunity of raising the subject of nylon stockings. This is not a subject peculiar to women only. The name is never mentioned without calling men to attention, yet men may not have known, and most British women have not known, of a very quick way of getting as many nylon stockings as they wished. What I must call a "ramp" has been going on now for more than a year to my knowledge. More than a year ago certain people wrote to me telling me that while it was impossible for British women to buy nylons in British shops, they could get as many pairs as they wanted via Gibraltar. I waited and tried to discover the names of the firms and in what way nylons were reaching British housewives when they were unable to buy them in British shops.

Before I go on to relate my detective work, I ought to say that the question of nylon stockings is a question of economy. I know that gentlemen think that it is a question of the artistic look. It is both. Nylons look well and they also wear exceedingly well. In the long run it is a great economy to buy nylon stockings, as any women who has had the good fortune to have good nylons would testify. They are a real housewive's economy.

Very suddenly I was presented with the clue to get nylons: As many pairs as you want and as many pairs as you want for your friends. I can only conclude that the people concerned had reached the letter M in the Scottish telephone directories because they all sent me their price lists. They were: Messrs. Parsram and Company Ltd., Gibraltar; Messrs. M. & J. Abecasis, drapery outfitters, Gibraltar; and Messrs. A. D. Cohen, General Stores, Gibraltar. Do not let it be said that these nylons are cheap and trashy. There are seamless from 6s. a pair and fully fashioned at 10s. a pair, right through the whole gamut of nylons until we reach Dupont glass nylon Special-de-luxe at 22s. 6d. a paid. Each of these firms has a long list of varieties of nylon stockings. One of the firms goes to the length of saying: As many pairs as required can be ordered at the same time. In payment only Postal Orders are accepted, but they will be despatched per separate airmails one pair at a time. I have been told that one may order six pairs and that they will reach one in an ordinary envelope one pair at a time. I do not know what the idea behind this is, but I have a suspicion that it is to evade Purchase Tax and Customs Duty.

Therefore, I put a Question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 17th October. I asked to what extent nylon stockings being sold to British women in single pairs by airmail and despatched from Gibraltar were subject to Purchase Tax and Customs Duty, how many parcels had been intercepted, and how much in tax and duty had been collected to date. I received the astonishing reply—remember that this was 17th October—that since the end of March 373,533 pairs of British manufactured nylons and 7,517 pairs of foreign manufacture arriving from Gibraltar by post had been charged with a total of £58,660 Purchase Tax and, where appropriate, duty.

If we take nearly 400,000 pairs of British nylons which have gone to Gibraltar, come back again, and have been intercepted in five months, how many pairs have slipped in unintercepted and how many pairs can one reckon as coming in in one year? Anyone who is good at a little compound proportion might figure that out. I should imagine that pretty well one million pairs in a year might be the sum of nylons concerned.

It is a scandal and a ramp and something ought to be done now, indeed ought to have been done long ago. From inquiries which I have made, these nylons are going to Gibraltar by way of the export trade, and are returning in this way. I believe that it could be stopped if we treated Gibraltar and Malta as if they were the home market. I should like the Minister in his reply to say, firstly, if he intends to allow this ramp to go on; secondly, if he intends to stop it; and, thirdly, if in stopping it he can say by what figure he will reduce the number of pairs of nylons going to Gibraltar and by what figure he will make them available to British women in the only honest and sensible way, namely, through their own shopkeepers here.

9.11 p.m.

Mr. Bottomley

I can speak again only by leave of the House. The hon. Lady for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mrs. Mann) says that the mention of nylons immediately draws a man's attention. I can assure her that that was not the reason I was called to attention this evening; it was because the hon. Lady gave me notice a little time ago that she was going to raise the matter, and in the short time at my disposal I tried to find out as much information as I could. The hon. and gallant Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Brigadier Mackeson), who by virtue of his office seldom gets a chance to speak, passed me a note asking me if I was being paid overtime. I am not. I suppose I am doing this for the love of nylons and the hon. Member for Coat-bridge and Airdrie.

We are very much concerned with this subject of the importation of nylon stockings into this country. It is a thing we do not wish to encourage. We have to say to ourselves, are we justified in taking some positive action to stop it? I think not. If we did we would cause a good deal of resentment and ill feeling, because the ban would apply equally to gifts coming from other parts especially of the British Commonwealth. I think that would be hard just before Christmas.

If we tried to discriminate we might even be accused of taking political action to which there could be objections. Certainly, if we tried to impose a ban upon imports from a particular territory, this in itself would only ease the situation from there while other territories would exploit it. If the hon. Lady suggests we should stop all that, it would have damaging results on our export trade generally and before we could agree—

Mrs. Mann

Surely it is not an honest export trade if the stockings are re-exported to this country. Surely that is a dishonest form of trading.

Mr. Bottomley

It is dishonest in the sense the hon. Lady mentions, but if there is a genuine export and the purchaser of it wishes to bestow it as a gift on a friend in this country, that is a reasonable thing and I do not think anyone would offer any serious objection. What we do hope to be able to achieve—it is difficult and we are carefully investigating it to see whether it is possible to do what the hon. Lady suggested—is to include these territories in the home market area. If that can be done manufacturers exporting to them would be in the same position as those who want to produce for the home market and must produce sufficient for export to justify sales to the home market. If we can do that we can put paid to what my hon. Friends called "this nylon ramp."

Miss Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

May I ask whether any inquiries have been made in Gibraltar of the authorities there to ascertain if they have any information on this matter? The hon. Gentleman did not mention that at all.

Mr. Bottomley

Oh, yes. The Colonial Office have this very much in mind and have been consulting with the authorities in Gibraltar who are anxious to co-operate in this matter.

Miss Ward

Can the hon. Gentleman give the results of the investigation?

Mr. Bottomley

I cannot give any specific information about results, except to say that there is the fullest co-operation.

9.17 p.m.

Brigadier Clarke (Portsmouth, West)

There is a matter with which I have to deal in my constituency. In Portsmouth, we have a number of traders who also have businesses in Gibraltar and they have been pressing for a considerable time for permission to sell nylons in Gibraltar in competition with Indians and Gibraltese. So far they have not been allowed to sell nylons unless they sold them before the war. Consequently, I imagine that these people—and this is pure surmise—are allowed to import nylons into Gibraltar and, having imported them, cannot sell them except to the hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mrs. Mann), and other ladies in this country.

Mrs. Mann

I must make my position perfectly clear. I would never dream of sending for any of these nylons, as I want the traffic stopped.

Brigadier Clarke

I am sorry. I was not suggesting that the hon. Lady was doing a dishonest trade with Gibraltar. I think she made it perfectly clear that she was not doing so. What I would draw attention to is the nylon-starved women of this country who obviously need nylons. As the hon. Lady pointed out in 400,000 cases re-imports have been inter- cepted in five months and probably there have been a million re-imports intercepted in a year. Probably only one in four are intercepted and four million nlyons are going out and coming back here. Would it not be better to allow these ladies to buy nylons here, rather than let them go all the way to Gibraltar and come back again? I know it is a good thing to let wine cross the sea, but I have never heard that nylons are improved by a trip like that.

9.18 p.m.

Mr. Nabarro (Kidderminster)

The Secretary for Overseas Trade, by the promised concession he made to the hon. Lady the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mrs. Mann), placed himself in an impossible position. The number of nylon stockings flowing back to this country from Gibraltar is, I understand, no greater, relatively, than the number flowing back from any other Western European country. It is a known fact that one can go into any ladies' equipment shop from Gibraltar to the Arctic Circle and buy a pair of British nylon stockings. One may either post them back to this country, or bring them back by air, or by boat and, as long as one declares the stockings at the Customs and is prepared to pay both Import Duty and Purchase Tax on them, I understand that no misdemeanour or illegal act is committed.

However that may be, I believe that the Secretary for Overseas Trade, by saying that he intends to take definite and specific action in the case of Gibraltar, places his Ministry in an absolutely and unwarrantable position. Surely, if he intends to take specific action in the case of Gibraltar, he must take similar action in the case of Malta, France, Belgium, Holland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark or any other Western European country, which, as he rightly observed earlier, would probably be interpreted as political recrimination. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary, therefore, to reconsider this matter very carefully, because I believe that the statement he made earlier this evening is unwise, misguided and misconceived.

Adjourned accordingly at Nineteen Minutes past Nine o'Clock.